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  • Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2020: Jerry Lohr

    From South Dakota Farm to California Wine Legend

    Jerry Lohr Person of 2020

    Wine Indus­try Insid­er
    By Lau­ra Ness 

    How many years does it take to become a full on leg­end in the wine busi­ness? For Jer­ry Lohr, who grew up in a South Dako­ta farm­ing fam­i­ly milk­ing the cows twice dai­ly, it took less than 20 to estab­lish J. Lohr Wines as a brand syn­ony­mous with qual­i­ty and val­ue. Now, 50 years on from the day he decid­ed to plant vines instead of being a cus­tom home devel­op­er, he has no inten­tion of slow­ing down. I might back off a lit­tle on the day to day oper­a­tions, but I still sign all the checks and I am the CFO. Plus I’m over­see­ing our build­ing projects.” The com­pa­ny recent­ly com­plet­ed a new 67K SF wine­mak­ing facil­i­ty in Green­field capa­ble of stor­ing 46k barrels.

    After grad­u­at­ing from South Dako­ta State Uni­ver­si­ty in 1958, Lohr moved to Cal­i­for­nia, receiv­ing an M.S. from Stan­ford in 1959. After pur­su­ing a Ph.D. in civ­il engi­neer­ing, he joined the Air Force in 1961, where he was a research sci­en­tist at the NASA Ames Research Cen­ter, Mof­fett Field, from 1961 – 1964. Back then, vine­yards were seen as an invest­ment and tax write-off, but Lohr saw some­thing more. Guid­ed by tast­ing expe­ri­ences at Paul Mas­son and his own gen­er­al curios­i­ty, he decid­ed to research the best places in Cal­i­for­nia to plant. At age 34, he plant­ed his first 280 acres of vines in Arroyo Seco in 1972, see­ing its enor­mous poten­tial. In fact, Jer­ry Lohr, along with the Wente and Miras­sou fam­i­lies, was instru­men­tal in mak­ing Mon­terey a house­hold name in the wine world.

    In 1986, con­vinced that Paso Rob­les was the next big thing, Lohr began plant­i­ng Caber­net Sauvi­gnon and Mer­lot there. Three years ago, the J. Lohr team cre­at­ed Pure Paso,” a blend of 70% Caber­net and 30% Petite Sir­ah that Jer­ry feels tru­ly embod­ies the region’s rich, bold mouth­feel and intense vari­etal char­ac­ter, caused by the 50 degree swings that occur dai­ly dur­ing the grow­ing season.

    His hearty, obsta­cles-be-damned Mid­west for­ti­tude serves him well, as he trav­els back and forth from his home of 40 years in Sarato­ga, to his home away from home at the Black Oak motel in Paso Rob­les. He spends sev­er­al days a week vis­it­ing the vine­yard prop­er­ties the com­pa­ny owns in Mon­terey and on the east side of Paso, check­ing up on ongo­ing con­struc­tion and replant­i­ng projects. The com­pa­ny farms a total of 4,000 acres of estate vines on a total of 5,000 acres, includ­ing 35 acres in the St. Hele­na AVA of Napa.

    I don’t spend much time on the com­put­er,” he says, as he’s dri­ving up high­way 101, talk­ing on the car phone in his trusty Jeep Grand Chero­kee. I’m either in a meet­ing or dri­ving. I don’t do email. I use the phone instead.”

    With a staff of 200+ now that includes all three of his chil­dren, a sales staff of 50, two tast­ing rooms and their staff, plus 50 full and part time vine­yard work­ers, J. Lohr has devel­oped the kind of scal­a­bil­i­ty that has allowed the com­pa­ny to reach a pro­duc­tion of 1.7M cas­es year­ly. I nev­er thought we’d get beyond 1M cas­es,” says Lohr, who tar­get­ed 125k cas­es when he start­ed out. We’re mak­ing 1M cas­es of Caber­net alone, at 5 dif­fer­ent lev­els, all of it from Paso. The top 3 tiers are all hand-har­vest­ed.” He cred­its his men­tor, Stan Wolfe from Paul Mas­son Win­ery in Sarato­ga, his first tast­ing room hang­out, for telling him, Get to your opti­mal lev­el of pro­duc­tion and then raise prices.” He notes that despite the fact that labor costs are con­stant­ly going up, he won’t do things on the cheap. He’s always sought to make wine from the very best grapes pos­si­ble, and grow­ing his own makes that pos­si­ble. We’ve always been a bet­ter value.”

    J. Lohr Vine­yards & Wines has achieved every goal the man has set, and then some. He’s per­son­al­ly received many acco­lades, includ­ing being hon­ored in 2016 as an indus­try icon and pio­neer­ing wine­grow­er by the Wine Enthu­si­ast as an Amer­i­can Wine Leg­end.” He’s only the third per­son in the six­teen-year his­to­ry of the Wine Star Awards to receive this pres­ti­gious accolade.

    I’ve had lots of glo­ry,” he says, But right now, the thing I’m con­cerned about is the water sit­u­a­tion. It’s com­ing to a head. We need 24” of rain to grow grapes in Paso and we got 14” in 2018. We’ve estab­lished viti­cul­ture prac­tices oppo­site of those who pour on nitro­gen and water to increase ton­nage: we’re after qual­i­ty.” He’s work­ing hard to get the right super­vi­sors elect­ed to enact smart pol­i­cy. I spent three hours on it this morning.”

    And the work is nev­er done, which makes him both endear­ing and for­mi­da­ble to work with, and for.

    Pres­i­dent and COO, Jeff Meier, who has been with the com­pa­ny since 1983, when he became wine­mak­er, says Jer­ry is an incred­i­bly bril­liant man and nev­er puts off until tomor­row what can be done today. His val­ues are hon­esty and frank­ness, finan­cial acu­men and pru­dence, life­long learn­ing through invest­ment in research and edu­ca­tion (both through finan­cial gifts, research coop­er­a­tion with Uni­ver­si­ties, atten­dance of indus­try edu­ca­tion events around the globe and invest­ment in employ­ees to accom­plish those goals) for con­stant improve­ment, ver­ti­cal inte­gra­tion (from vine­yard own­er­ship and farm­ing to our own nation­al and inter­na­tion­al sales force) and final­ly, thor­ough analy­sis of issues (from his civ­il engi­neer­ing edu­ca­tion at South Dako­ta State and Stan­ford) to inform time­ly, wise deci­sion mak­ing.” That about sums it.

    Direc­tor of Wine­mak­ing, Steve Peck, says, Jer­ry has taught me the val­ue of mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial out­comes in busi­ness. J. Lohr has been suc­cess­ful at least in part because Jer­ry respects and insists that our busi­ness part­ners be suc­cess­ful as well. That extends to the dis­trib­u­tors, restau­rants, and retail­ers that pour and fea­ture our wine as well as our employ­ees in the win­ery and in the vine­yard. He’s just one of those guys that you want to work hard for.”

    Lohr’s daugh­ter, Cyn­thia, serves as chief brand offi­cer, after a career build­ing brands like Yahoo! and Alexa, which was sold to Ama­zon in 1999. She says her father’s core val­ues are trans­paren­cy, account­abil­i­ty, respect and authen­tic­i­ty. If you spend 10 min­utes with Jer­ry Lohr, you know quick­ly what he stands for, as his val­ues res­onate in every­thing he does.”

    Cyn­thia admits that her dad has set a very high bar, refer­ring to her­self as the farmer’s daugh­ter,” as she ris­es before dawn to stay ahead of the workload.

    She cred­its her father for his tire­less advo­ca­cy. My father is very focused, as we all know, and spends most of his free time advo­cat­ing to bet­ter our indus­try through applied research, focused aca­d­e­mics, even find­ing long-term solu­tions to dwin­dling nat­ur­al resources. But he’s real­ly inter­est­ed in learn­ing people’s sto­ries, and has tremen­dous curios­i­ty, not to men­tion grace, which he extends to each and every per­son he meets.”

    Kris­ten Barn­his­el, Wine­mak­er, White Wines, is based in their Green­field oper­a­tion. She says Jer­ry inspires her to nev­er stop exper­i­ment­ing. I’ve also learned to think more about the big pic­ture, what 10 or 20 years down the road might look like. His lead­er­ship style encour­ages me to focus on the details for high wine qual­i­ty. It also allows me the free­dom to think out­side the box to keep exper­i­ment­ing to cre­ate the best wine pos­si­ble. I’m proud to have had the J. Lohr Ges­ture RVG poured at the James Beard House Women Chefs Rule’ din­ner in 2018 and to have the 2017 River­stone Chardon­nay on the Wine Enthu­si­ast Top 100 Best Buy list.”

    Jerry’s eldest son, Steve, who serves as CEO, tru­ly enjoys the chance to work with his sis­ter, Cyn­thia, and broth­er, Lawrence. It’s a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty for a fam­i­ly to work well togeth­er: some­thing that Jer­ry cred­its to their indi­vid­ual skill sets mesh­ing har­mo­nious­ly with the needs of the busi­ness. Says Steve, For one, it gives us a chance to see each oth­er quite often, but more impor­tant­ly, it’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off of each oth­er know­ing that we come from the same sense of shared val­ues, goals and his­to­ry with our busi­ness. I helped Jer­ry plant our first vine­yard when I was ten years old, in Mon­terey Coun­ty. Plant­i­ng the vines inspired me to see the process through to com­ple­tion, which in our case did not stop with the deliv­ery of grapes to anoth­er win­ery, but hav­ing a con­sumer try our wine. The chal­leng­ing mix of agri­cul­ture, pro­duc­tion, sales, mar­ket­ing and finance was (and still is) so intrigu­ing; I knew even as a fifth-grad­er that this was some­thing I would do for the rest of my life.”

    He says his dad knows a thing or two about mak­ing ice cream. One of my fond­est child­hood mem­o­ries (out­side of hop­ping on a trac­tor with dad in the vine­yard) is mak­ing straw­ber­ry ice cream with Dad, Mom (Car­ol), Cyn­thia and Lawrence.”

    Among Jerry’s many con­tri­bu­tions to the indus­try, Steve points to the lit­tle known fact that his father fund­ed the research into the DNA sequenc­ing of the Caber­net Sauvi­gnon grape. This infor­ma­tion is being made pub­lic so that all may ben­e­fit from the greater under­stand­ing of this grape vari­ety,” says Steve.

    But it’s Jerry’s abil­i­ty to engage with peo­ple one on one that has made him such a trea­sure. Says Meier, One oth­er thing about Jer­ry that real­ly impressed me was his desire and abil­i­ty to remem­ber guest’s names – some­thing that I am ter­ri­ble at. I will nev­er for­get a dis­trib­u­tor group vis­it of 45+ per­sons when I was first appoint­ed wine­mak­er. Jer­ry shook hands with each guest and 15 min­utes lat­er would call on them by name for ques­tions. It made such a huge impres­sion on those dis­trib­u­tor per­son­nel that they nev­er for­got Jerry’s inter­est in tak­ing the time to learn everyone’s name.”

    Peck shares, I love this sto­ry that I heard from a for­mer employ­ee about Jer­ry when I joined the com­pa­ny in 2007. Jer­ry is big on edu­ca­tion. He had arranged for him­self and six or eight employ­ees to fly to Aus­tralia in 2004 to attend the AWITC Con­fer­ence to catch up on the very lat­est in viti­cul­ture and enol­o­gy research. It was close to mid­night and he was check­ing in at the air­port in San Fran­cis­co. The air­line agent let Jer­ry know that they had a first class upgrade avail­able for him at no charge. Jer­ry is 6 foot 5. What? I couldn’t pos­si­bly! What would peo­ple think?’ Jer­ry took the coach cab­in and rotat­ed from seat to seat so that he could have time to talk in depth with each of the employ­ees indi­vid­u­al­ly about projects in each of their respec­tive areas. Why waste an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get some work done? That’s Jer­ry. Always hum­ble and always on task.”

    Read the full arti­cle here. 

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